Sunday, February 15, 2009

Partisanship and American Jewry

By Kiera Wiatrak

(Harry: Kiera is a close friend of mine and one of my favorite journalists to debate these complex and emotional issues with, and I consider it a privilege to publish her work here on Mad Progress!)

My mom always told me I did everything early. I was speaking in five word sentences before I was two, I became a defiant teenager at eleven and was over by it by thirteen, and my metabolism stopped letting me eat whatever I wanted in middle school rather than high school.

But the most substantial thing I did early was become an ignorant political activist. While a lot of people wait until they’re in college to find someone to idolize and some cause to mimic without doing the necessary but tedious reading and research, I did it in high school.

I found a teacher I adored and became a bleeding-heart liberal overnight, even though I probably couldn’t have even told you the difference between the house and the senate.

Some of the issues were easy, like gay marriage and abortion rights.

It was so easy to have convictions, and a lot of fun too. At 17, I decided to have them about everything liberals are supposed to have them about, as long as the time taken to acquire them didn’t interfere with prime time television.

I enjoyed my newfound intellectualism for a while, but eventually, I came across the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Much to my dismay, I discovered that siding with the Palestinians was essentially the liberal thing to do.

This shook me. As a proud American Jew, Israel has always meant something to me. I’ve been learning about it from textbooks since I was a little girl, not to mention the unequivocal stories of family and friends that continue to captivate me.

During an interview in his Madison home, UW-Madison Chabad Rabbi Mendel Matusof highlighted two key reasons why this may have come to be the case.

“Israel has always survived due to the IDF,” he says. “That’s a very Republican idea of your survival being based on your army, and having tremendous amounts of military strength.”

The second and more transparent reason thrives on historical inaccuracies that give the impression that Palestinians are the underdog.

“Right now this is the situation: Israelis have a strong army and a strong military. The Palestinians don’t,” he says. “Israelis can destroy Palestinian homes and so on and the list goes on and on.”

But thousands of years of global persecution of the Jews, culminating in the Holocaust during World War II, was proof enough for the U.N. that a central safe haven for the Jews was essential. And with the rising anti-Semitism across Europe and elsewhere as time distances the horrors of the Holocaust from upcoming generations, a Jewish safe haven is still more than necessary.

At 17, I had encountered the political paradox of the American Jewry. While most American Jews identify as Democrats—according to an American Jewish Committee poll, 63 percent of American Jews identify as Democrats while 83 percent voted for Obama in the 2008 election —the notion of advocating Israel as a Jewish nation is largely a right wing ideal.

Clearly, in November’s presidential election, the Democratic identity won out. However, Emily Singer, president of MADPac, a bi-partisan student organization at UW-Madison that works to strengthen the United States-Israel relationship, pointed out that the influence of the Israel lobbyists and the advantages of having a strong ally in the Middle East would prevent any presidential candidate from fighting against Israel’s right to exist.

“I think it was pretty clear to people who know about American politics. . .that both candidates were good for Israel because no American president can really run on a platform of being anti-Israel or not agreeing with Israel’s politics,” she said.

Yet although both candidates may have shown support for Israel while campaigning, Matusof and UW-Madison political science professor Nadav Shelef pointed out that the approaches each may take relative to their own parties when dealing with the tension between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries could influence an American voter to vote Democrat or Republican.

“Probably one of the key divisions in American Jewish society is what they think is actually good for Israel,” he says. “Jews who think. . .leaving Israel alone or not pushing it to disengage in the territories makes Israel stronger may be likely to vote one way. Jews who think it’s in Israel’s best interest to withdraw from the territories, that that actually makes Israel stronger in some sense, may vote another way.”

Below is Israeli Political Science Professor Nadav Shelef of the University of Wisconsin discussing the differences between Democrats and Republicans concerning Israel:

UW Chabad Rabbi Mendal Matusof adds to Shelef's point about the varying opinions in regards to Israel in the video below:

However, some Jews felt since secure that both candidates would support Israel and therefore focused more on other issues when deciding who to vote for.

“To me, it was like yeah, even though I care about Israel, I think the domestic issues in America are far more important because it’s not like Obama is going to stop talking to Israel or anything like that,” Singer said.

Matusof agreed. “McCain and Obama both had perfect scores from AIPAC,” he said. “Therefore, that became an irrelevant issue, and then the debate became on American politics and all their other policies.”

But Singer, who identifies as a liberal, said that if Israel had been the only issue at stake, she still would’ve voted for Obama. “I agree with his methods in dealing with the Middle East because I think diplomacy and negotiation is more important and can be more useful than war.”

In the video below Singer discusses the problems with the terms “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine”:

Like Singer, I also voted for Obama. But if I had been voting only for Israel, I’m not sure I would’ve made the same choice. Like many other American Jews, I felt the U.S. alliance with Israel would be strong under any administration, and Obama’s policies on most other issues was more consistent with my political beliefs than McCain’s were.

But when it comes to Israel, although I hope one day we can find a peaceful two state solution, I’m still more comfortable knowing their military is strong and ready to fight.

I know that’s very Republican of me, but maybe I’m more of a Republican when it comes to Israel and a Democrat when considering most everything else.

Like Matusof said, I do feel a very vital connection to Israel. But for me, it’s not really a religious connection. It’s more of a traditional one. It’s the spirited Jewish culture I grew up with. It’s knowing that my ancestors regained their lives in Israel after the Holocaust. It’s the Israeli exchange student who lived with us for a year. It’s my brother’s Bar-Mitzvah on Mount Masada. And yeah, there’s a little bit of fear in there too.

So I am the embodiment of the American Jewish paradox, and that’s because like most people, my political self is more than just a Democrat or a Republican. It’s an accumulation of my values, my upbringing and the person I hope to become. Maybe if we could all put aside our party affiliations, we might learn to advocate and criticize those things that mean something to us, rather than to our parties.


Anonymous said...

I too have struggled with my political identity in the wake of the 2008 election. It frustrates me that so many young people whole-heartedly support a candidate, whether democratic or republican, without truly understanding the issues at stake. As an American Jew, I always place Israel as top priority when supporting a candidate. This has made the recent election extremely aggravating for me. What an excellent article, that has finally placed me constant political into words.-Bryce Jacob

fabricjunkie said...

It is very refreshing to read that a young person is not blindly choosing a candidate based on the "liberal vs. conservative" image. It would be wonderful if the rest of the voting public could take a lesson from Ms. Wiatrak and really think about the issues before they decide. As the author states in the begining of her article that she "does everything early", I'm afraid that most mature adults never reach the level of insight that she has attained at her young age!

jiskew said...

I thought I was the only one. For most of my high school career I struggled to reconcile my liberal tendencies with my zionist upbringing. How could I ignore the various human rights abuses committed by the Israeli government? How can anyone who calls themselves liberal and defenders of global rights. Here's the answer, you don't have to. Part of being a zionist is supporting policies that are conducive to a sustainable Jewish state. If you look at Israeli domestic politics, there's a lot of liberal voices, and unlike the arab states, dissent is not only allowed but encouraged. I do not understand why liberals jump to criticize israel for not recognizing hamas as a legitimate government, while defending hamas' policies to imprison journalists, kill civilians (israeli and palestinian), push for strict sharia law within their territory, etc... People are looking to make the middle-east conflict analogous to the abortion or gay marriage debate, in which little gray area exists--one side is right and the other is wrong. They define zionism as imperialism and invoke such powerful words such as "concentration camp" referring to the Gaza detente, and genocide referring to the arrest of terrorists.

What you pointed out in your article really shed some light on a dilemma those who are liberals and zionists face. I think it is also a bit discerning when liberal zionists do not take the time to reconcile their beliefs, and on the one hand support liberal american policies, but also support the expansion of illegal religious settlements in the West Bank. I think that because we had to overcome this at such an early age, we are able to see the gray area in most (not all) political turmoil. Once again, great article!!